Commentary: Death of Samir Khan was also a U.S. family's loss of a son

The Charlotte ObserverOctober 11, 2011 

What should we say to the Khan family?

They live in northeast Charlotte, in a middle class community, and in the five years before my family moved last year, they were my neighbors. They lived down the road and around the bend, and they had a son who played basketball in the street. I probably drove by him, and I’m sure I’ve waved at his parents driving by my home, but I don’t remember.

In fact, I never had occasion to meet the Khans until a few years back, when I walked down the street to knock on their door and ask, as a newspaper reporter, why their son hated the United States.

They didn’t answer the door then, and they have since been quiet until last week, when they released a statement after Samir Khan was killed Sept. 30 along with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone in Yemen.

Samir Khan was 25 years old, a former Central Piedmont Community College student who started writing a radical blog in the basement of his family’s home. By several accounts, his father and others tried to convince him his radicalism was misguided, but Khan moved to Yemen after newspaper reports about that blog. There he produced the al-Qaida magazine “Inspire,” in which he wrote: “I am proud to be a traitor to America.”

So if you’re expecting a defense of Samir Khan here, know this: He declared himself an enemy of the United States, and he died riding in a car with another sworn enemy. We can allow ourselves at least a portion of the satisfaction he would’ve taken if our country were to be attacked again.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions we should ask. What should we say to the Khan family, which was contacted by the U.S. government last week only after the family noted in the statement that no U.S. official had called about Samir Khan’s remains, nor offered any condolences? How do we respond when the Khans point to their son’s death, then to the Fifth Amendment, which promises due process to American citizens?

Constitutional scholars have been divided when asked to reconcile the two. Khan’s death sets a precedent in which the U.S. president can authorize the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a formal charge or trial – and without, essentially, any substantial outside checks on the decision. Even if we think this president made no error with this decision, do we move forward believing every president will make the same, right choice for the right reasons, unchecked and in secrecy? If you were troubled by the constitutional overreaches of the post-?9/11 Bush administration, you should be just as unsettled now.

Many won’t be, of course, just as many have responded to the Khan family statement with the predictably shrill voices that paint Samir Khan as representative of the Muslim American population. Some of us, too, struggle with a subtler and quieter discomfort. It’s that anxiety that’s stirred whenever we see a turban on a plane, and although we fight that urge, in difficult moments we give in. We look the other way when we learn that there’s one less terrorist that can threaten us. We don’t admonish our government for being shamed into acknowledging a family’s pain.

We are 10 years past 9/11, and the stain keeps reappearing. Not the extremists who protest mosques and prattle about Sharia law. Not the intolerant who will find fear no matter the color of its skin. It’s the reasonable among us who lose that reason, in subtle and significant ways, then promise we are and will be better than that.

So what do we say to the Khans, our neighbors, who lost a son last week after losing him years ago? Perhaps there’s not anything we can say, but we can start with this:

We’re sorry.

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